F is for Fairport Convention

Liege & Lief coverBetween 1970 and 1974 I don’t remember many notable gigs taking place in St. Andrews.   Maybe groups just didn’t fancy the journey, maybe more of them went to Dundee, or maybe I was just, well, otherwise engaged?  But I do remember seeing Fairport Convention, at the Younger Hall and I guess it was 1973 or 4. Then band’s official site describes the 70s as a time of confusion for the group, but as I recall they were still basking in the success of Liege and Lief (still in our ‘record’ collection!) and it was a great night.

It did eventually come to my attention that friends in Ednburgh had access to a much bigger music scene than we did in the East Neuk, but I don’t remember minding too much.  In fact I think the only other group I saw in my student days was Curved Air – an electrifying performance in, of all places, the Kinema Ballroom, Dunfermline.

Even when I moved to Oxford for a year, folk and folk rock were very much the order of the day.  My next musical outing was to a concert (did he do gigs?) by Ralph McTell, he of Streets of London fame.  (Not sure what brought that one on!)

McCartney album coverOf course, Fairport, like so many other aging rockers, are still going, and in the the last few years we’ve  taken to checking out a few of the old-timers:  Elton John, Rod Stewart, and last year even Paul McCartney, who played for a staggering 3 hours on a memorable June night in Cardiff. His first solo album was part of the sound-track to my time as a bejantine in Hamilton Hall.

Those were the days!


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D is for Deans Court

Deans CourtMore student accommodation today, but  Deans Court is historically and stylistically as far from Albany Park as it possibly could be, and although the two are quite close geographically, I might easily have left university without even knowing of its existence.

You can read elsewhere about the long history of this very ancient building, but since its acquisition by the university, it has been a residence exclusively for post-graduate students, a group with whom I had very little contact until my final year, when this exotic species (a high percentage of Deans Court residents were international students, and as I recall all of them were male) somehow turned up on our radar. Even better, they were able to invite occasional guests to the legendary meals, and if the dining room had a monastic feel, the food most definitely did not.  Tucked in close to the cathedral ruins, this was a hidden gem, miles away from our feeble attempts at self-catering.

Deans Court dining room

Dining, but not as we knew it

I see that it’s still ‘catered accommodation’ throughout the year. It can’t be the same chef, but I hope the new one is keeping up those standards!

(Photos from Wikipedia Commons)
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C is for something Completely different

John CleeseSomewhere amongst my souvenirs I’m sure I have a dusty photo of John Cleese  but for now it is lost without trace and so I’ll have to make do with this one from Wikipedia. But this is how he  looked in 1971, when I was still a first year student (yes, for those who like the lingo that’s  a bejantine,)  and he was installed as Rector.

The Rector’s role  (I’ve only just discovered the position is unique to the old Scottish universities) is to represent the student body on the university court or governing body, but Cleese’ election, slap bang in the Monty Python era (previous incumbents being more worthy  than hip) was a breath of fresh air and his actual installation yet another  excuse for celebration and general mucking about.

In fact Cleese, as promised, took his role seriously and made changes that are still in place today. He also started a trend for appointments from entertainment and the media. The current Rector,  Kevin Dunion is from the world of politics but looks to me to be doing all the right things.

In 1971 John Cleese still had Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda ahead of him, but I next ran into him in my first job  when his Video Arts films were hot property for all our Business and Management Courses. Like Cleese himself, now on a U.K. Tour, they’re still around. And I bet they’re still funny.

Of course C could be for so many other things …Canoeing Club? Classics? or maybe more famously, Chariots of Fire. I’m afraid that one’s irresistible. Go on, you know you want to see it again – apologies for the adverts.

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B is for … Brewster

Sir David Brewster
Sir David Brewster photographed by Hill and Adamson

Today the St. Andrews trip goes a long way back in time, in fact to 1838, when Sir David Brewster arrived to be Principal of  St. Andrews University. By this time Brewster, originally trained in theology, was already an eminent man of science who had become famous chiefly for his invention of the kaleidoscope. Brewster would be in St. Andrews for twenty years but it was early on in his tenure that he became a key figure in the development of photography.  

The timing of Brewster’s arrival was crucial, because in 1839 his friend W.H. Fox-Talbot succeeded in producing the first true photographic images,  and although ‘The Fox’  guarded his secrets jealously, he trusted his friend Brewster with the details of the process he had used. Brewster’s area of scientific expertise was the study of light, and he was determined to replicate if not improve on Fox-Talbot’s work.  He gathered a group of university and townsmen to help him do this of whom John Adamson,  helped by his brother Robert, was the first to have real success.

It would be a few more years before Brewster introduced Robert Adamson to D.O. Hill, the provider of artistic momentum in their famous partnership,  but Brewster’s early intervention explains why St. Andrews has provided some of the earliest examples of photography and why the university library has one of the richest photographic collections in Scotland. 

Hill and Adamson’s relationship with Fox-Talbot seems to have been an awkward one, and I often wonder where Brewster stood in this. Anyone interested in a creative exploration of how it might have felt to be part of the Adamson family when Brewster was around can have a look at this tiny piece of historical fiction which  I’ve called The Fox and The Rooster.  

I’ve also written a factual article that outlines the full story of Brewster, Hill, Adamson and the moment  that brought them together. Anyone interested, please leave a comment and contact details.

Many more images by Hill and Adamson can be viewed on the National Gallery of Scotland photostream on flickr.

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A is for …

So here we go on the blog journey that’s going to retrace some of the steps I took in St. Andrews way back in the 1970s (there, that’s out of the way) and maybe adding a couple of more recent finds. 

A could be for so many things, Academic Dress, Academic families, or Aien (the student newspaper as it was back in the day) but after a bit of mulling over, I’ve decided to put the obvious to one side just for a moment and choose Albany Park.

So there’s a surprise. Not the most august of landmarks, in fact not a landmark at all, AlbanyPark is a cluster of modern houses in the new wave of student accommodation that catered for those who well, wanted to cater.

And so after three years of a cosseted existence where breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner were all provided this is where four of us  chose to take on the challenge of living and cooking together. Albany Park was brand new at the time and an immediate hit. Instead of a warden there was a friendly caretaker on site, and we no longer had to endure the predictability of hall menus where Chick Frick, Hawaian Bacon and Chicken Maryland came up with appalling regularity. As the houses were for six, two newcomers were thrown into the mix, although I seem to recall they quickly withdrew from our attempts at menu planning and money management and ‘did for themselves’.

So what did we eat? The only things I can recall were mince and potatoes (not much adventure there)  and ‘stuffed vine leaves’ where cabbage stood in for the vine, not exactly a native species in these parts. We quickly found that a varied menu was a bigger challenge than we had realised. Then the friendly caretaker turned traitor and made a spot check, and our kitchen was declared unhygienic. We were black affronted. Let’s face it, did he really have to look behind the fridge?

East SandsIn its favour Albany Park was just a bit out of a town that by Finals year was beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic, and a stone’s throw from the East Sands, excellent for a bit of personal space when things got tough. For me this had a less fortunate legacy. Having bought two rather nice pairs of Ravel platform shoes in a sale, these were my chosen footwear for the twice daily stomp into town. I’m not saying they hurt, not all the time, but I don’t think my feet have ever been quite the same.

Photo credits: East Sands Photo from europealacarte on flickr
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An Alumnus Alphabet

St. Andrews,  clinging to the edge of the Fife coast, is an oddity in so many ways.   With a skyline to die for and a wind you just want to avoid,  it’s  overrun for most of the year by students and for the rest of the time by those  who come to worship at the  mecca of golf.  And yet despite these shoals of visitors (not to mention royal affiliations) it somehow clings on to its small-town identity.

And what does it mean to me? Born and brought up in Fife, I knew it first as the bearer of a bucket, spade and swimsuit.  Later, for four whole years, it became my alma  mater, and more recently I’ve found myself  drawn back there. A trip to Fife in 2007  sparked A  Kettle of Fish, which in turn sent me digging up events that took place there long before as part of a new novel.

But soon it will be in the news again for very different reasons, and I’m taking the opportunity to launch a series of blog posts about St. Andrews, to acknowledge and celebrate its importance in my life  as  well as the lives of so many others.

Although I’ve missed the A-Z  blog challenge I’ll probably keep to the same format, but won’t promise to finish in any particular timescale (and certainly not by April 29th!) as  I’d like to take  time over a trip which will be mostly unashamed nostalgia with a few digressions along the way,  some of them related to my other interests as a writer.

Of course I’d love any other St. Andrians out there to  come along to add impressions,  memories or suggestions.  the Pier St. Andrews

The blog format means, by the way, that it will read as Z-A rather than A-Z.

Do use the sidebar to find older posts, and contact me if you’d like to add posts of your own. (Lords and commoners equally welcome!)

I’ll try to keep embarrassing photos to a minimum, but you might like to try guessing the year this one was taken.

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